Josef Newgarden wins second series title and first since 2017 although few fans saw it
Indy Car may be relevant again
IMONTEREY, Calif. (AP) — It feels like the 1990s again in IndyCar, which closed its season with a throwback tour to a pair of treasured old haunts, a compelling championship race and a rookie class that proved the little series can still attract top talent.
Is IndyCar back? Not exactly.
But the slow rebuild back to relevancy took another big step with a successful season capped by Josef Newgarden's second championship in three years. The American won the crown driving for Team Penske at Laguna Seca Raceway, a beloved and beautiful permanent road course high in the hills of Monterey that had been dropped from the IndyCar schedule 14 years ago.
The season finale followed IndyCar's second consecutive visit to Portland, another old favorite from the days when the open wheel series was the most popular form of motorsports in the United States. But infighting, greed and jealously led to a devastating series split, allowed NASCAR to take over as king of American motorsports, and Portland and Laguna Seca became nothing more than fond memories of the headier days.
As IndyCar has clawed its way toward a renaissance, it has in many ways returned to its roots.
"I think the teams, when you look at them top to bottom, it's competitive," said Roger Penske, who won his 16th championship and 18th Indianapolis 500 this season. "I think the rules are in great shape, and it's affordable to go racing in IndyCar now, which I think is key.
"If we keep the rules the way they are, then we can get data equity, we need to come back to these tracks the same time every year, and that's going to grow this fan base. I think the races are the right length, and we have a really key TV partner with NBC. It was a real superstar event for us, and obviously for the whole series and the IndyCar family and industry."
The returns to Portland and Laguna Seca sparked a trip down memory lane for many in the paddock, who found themselves giddy over the crowds eager to greet old friends. In Portland, they celebrated Greg Moore, a budding superstar on his way into a seat with Roger Penske when he was killed in the 1999 season finale. The gathering was just like the old days, when drivers and teams competed all weekend then wrapped up the event with a blowout party, and the one in Portland was a reminder of how much fun the series used to be.
Then IndyCar moved on to Laguna Seca, where everyone reminisced about Bryan Herta's 1996 loss when Alex Zanardi pulled off an impossible pass in the famed corkscrew turn. The topic came up time and again as Herta's son, now a 19-year-old phenom in the series, dazzled in every session.
Colton Herta was fast as soon as he got his Harding Steinbrenner Racing car onto the circuit, and just an hour before qualifying it was announced he and his team would be pulled inside of Andretti Autosport next season.
Herta then won the pole — he did at Portland, too — and led all but seven laps Sunday for his second win of the season. The first victory, days before his 19th birthday back in March, made him the youngest winner in IndyCar history.
The victory was not enough to hold off a determined Felix Rosenqvist in the race for rookie of the year. Rosenqvist believed he had a car capable of winning Sunday's finale, only to have his chances dashed by a penalty in qualifying that relegated him to a 14th-place starting position at a track where passing is quite difficult. The Swede had the drive of the race in finishing fifth and denying Herta a sweep of all the awards.
Then came the celebration for Newgarden, who was unusually emotional over this second championship. He sobbed after the race, and was still choking back tears nearly two hours later. He grew up in Tennessee, but wasn't really interested in NASCAR and wanted to be an open-wheel racer.
Same with Alexander Rossi, a California kid who saw his first race when he was 3, when his father brought him to Laguna Seca and made it an annual affair. But the declining health of IndyCar drove Newgarden, Rossi, Herta, Santino Ferrucci — all Americans — to Europe for its ladder system toward Formula One.
Now they are all back, and others around the world are taking notice.
"I would encourage anyone to come over here. I know many guys are looking to do it, and some of my friends, they're always asking about IndyCar, how are the ovals," said Rosenqvist. "Maybe a lot of drivers are scared of the ovals, which I can understand. I challenge anyone to come here and do well on the ovals immediately. Doing well in the championship itself for sure is not easy. It's been the biggest challenge I've had.
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IndyCar drivers ranking
Using INDYCAR’s advanced statistics and data, we’ve developed a weighted formula to rate the NTT IndyCar Series drivers after each race this season. Welcome to the Power Rankings – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Will Power is always included.
How does it work? We look beyond the results of the event, also factoring in qualifying results, on-track passes, on-track position passes and average running position throughout the race to come up with each driver’s unique rating.
The rankings are based on the four most recent races. The most recent race (Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio) is weighted the most in the rating and the oldest race (REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR) the least.
So, following Mid-Ohio and heading to Pocono on Aug. 18, here’s a look at the top NTT IndyCar Series drivers:
Who’s No. 1:
Simon Pagenaud – Sometimes consistency is key and consistent is what Simon Pagenaud has been over the last month. The Team Penske driver won a pair of poles, the Toronto race and finished just off the podium at Mid-Ohio. That moves him to No. 1 this week.
On the Rise
Chip Ganassi Racing – Scott Dixon has finished in the top five in the past four races and other than an Iowa he’d like to forget, series rookie Felix Rosenqvist has been on his tail during that stretch. At Mid-Ohio, the Ganassi duo scored the team’s first 1-2 finish in nearly four seasons. Rosenqvist was the highest-rated driver at Mid-Ohio and returns to the poll in fifth.
Looking to Bounce Back
James Hinchcliffe – The Mayor’s race at Mid-Ohio lasted less than a lap. Contact from teammate Marcus Ericsson (who had been hit by Takuma Sato) damaged Hinchcliffe’s car, and he never had a chance to show the pace he had all weekend.
The Top 10
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World of Outlaws
James McFadden? Brad Sweet? Kyle Larson? Your mind spun with the question of who will win, unable to find a clear answer as the three drivers dueled with the intensity of gladiators fighting to be the last man standing.
Then the dust settled. A moment of quiet ease spread around the quarter-mile Fairbury Speedway arena. Climbing atop the wing of his No. 57 machine to thunderous applause and an explosion of confetti was Larson – claiming his eighth World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series win Tuesday night.
The win gives him back-to-back World of Outlaws victories, after winning his last Series race at Lawrenceburg Speedway on Memorial Day.
“Cool to get a win back-to-back with the Outlaws, I’ve never done that before,” Larson said.
The last time he won more than one World of Outlaws race in a season was back in 2013 – a year before he went full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing.
Larson had to duel with fellow NASCAR competitor Christopher Bell and 10-time Series champion Donny Schatz to claim the win at Lawrenceburg. This time around, he had to face the dominate Kasey Kahne Racing duo of McFadden and Sweet.
The KKR teammates started the FVP Platinum Battery Showdown event going first and second in practice with Sweet pacing the field. The NAPA Auto Parts No. 49 car then backed up its speed in Qualifying by setting Quick Time. McFadden was third. Larson seventh.
Sweet then won his Drydene Heat race with ease. Larson and McFadden dueled for the win in the third Drydene Heat race of the night with Larson dominating the field.
McFadden came back with force, charging to the win in the DIRTVision Fast Pass Dash. Sweet finished third, and Larson sixth – setting their starting position for the 40-lap Feature.
McFadden wrestled with his 900hp machine, taming it like a wild stallion at the start of the Feature to take the early lead. His run was cut short by a red flag on the first lap for Dylan Tuxhorn rolling over in turn one.
When the Feature went back green, heart rates amplified. Breaths were held. McFadden led, but Sweet was charging for a fight.
The two teammates traded lanes lap after lap, corner after corner. Sweet could power his way to either the inside or outside of the Wicked Energy Gum No. 9 car into the turn, but McFadden could launch off the exit with the power of the gods.
While they dueled, Larson slayed the competition between him and the leaders with ease. By Lap 13, he gave the KKR duo something else to fear. Going into turn three he forced his car under Sweet, making it a three-wide battle through the corner – a common theme throughout the next several laps.
Sweet built up a strong enough run to steal the lead from McFadden on Lap 17. He couldn’t shake him, though. McFadden and Larson stayed on his bumper and the next time around they both snuck by him. McFadden threw his car low in turn three, while Larson squeezed his car between the outside of Sweet and the wall.
McFadden reclaimed the lead and now had a fierce Larson to contend with. The next lap, back in turns three and four, McFadden, again, went low and Larson high. The god-like launches McFadden could get exiting a corner were no match for the resilient throttle hungry Larson.
The two traded the lead for the next couple of laps with Larson eventually prevailing. McFadden still had fight left in him, though. And not far behind was Sweet, lurking. Waiting for another opportunity to strike.
In the closing laps, with the leaders having to navigate lap traffic, Larson couldn’t lose McFadden. The Australian was building momentum lap after lap, inching closer and closer to Larson. But then, with eight laps to go, McFadden’s battle came to an end.
While stuck behind a lap car through turns one and two, McFadden hit the corner tire and spun to a stop.
“Really fun race track,” said McFadden, still with a smile, after the Feature. “It was awesome racing with Brad and Kyle. They’re obviously a couple of the best guys in the country. I don’t know if I just misjudged the lap car. He got the tractor tire I think and slowed him a bunch. I just got into the back of him and when I did that, the tractor tire came out, after he hit it, and I got it and that was that. At the end of the day, it was a positive step for the team.”
In the remaining eight laps, Larson now had to contest with a hard charging Sweet.
Larson stuck to the bottom of the track – the least likely place for him to make a mistake, he said. Sweet took advantage of that, soaring around the outside of the speedway to find as much grip as he could to catch the Chevrolet Accessories No. 57 Silva Motorsports car.
Coming to the checkered flag, Larson faltered. He slid off turn four, scrubbing speed and allowing Sweet the opportunity to strike one final time.
The distance between the leaders was still too much for Sweet, though. Like a warrior on a steed signifying his victory, Larson sprinted to the checkered flag with his front two wheels off the ground.
“That was just an exciting race from start to finish for me,” Larson said. “Shoot, 40 laps around this place was crazy. It felt like we swapped the lead a lot. Just an awesome race track. Short tracks are always a blast.”
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